BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Artist? Activist? Audio anthropologist? Singer? Songwriter? Storyteller? As it relates to musician Joel Rafael, the answer to all of those questions is a resounding “Yes!” Rafael, whose latest collection of hauntingly heartfelt tunes, Baladista, arrives on April 14, has been penning his sometimes painfully honest and often thought-provoking mini musical movies since his early 20’s.
“I probably made like the actual solid decision that I was gonna pursue songwriting as a career when I was about 22, 23 years old,” Rafael said when asked when he chose to make his avocation (he formed his first band in the sixth grade) his vocation. “But I knew way earlier on than that that I wanted to be involved in performing arts in some way. I was listening to a different mix of music than most of my peers because my parents had me and my brother when they were older. My parents were like 10 years older than all of my friends’ parents and so their record collection was a decade different than what most of my friends were listening to as far as accessing their parents’ record collection. And so I probably decided to start singing when at an early age I got into Al Jolson through The Jolson Story  movie. And at some point in the early 60s, that’s where I first got a taste for wanting to grab a guitar, get out from behind the drums and be able to do a little bit more singing.”
In addition to spending decades writing and singing his own material, Rafael also devoted years to performing and recording the songs of his aural and activist guidepost, Woody Guthrie. For nearly 20 years, Rafael has performed at the Woody Guthrie Festival , held annually in the folk legend’s hometown of Okemah, OK, and along the way he’s recorded two Guthrie tribute albums, 2003’s Woodeye and 2005’s Woodyboye. Today, the Southern California native is proud to present Baladista (available April 14 on Jackson Browne’s Inside Recordings label), his latest 10-track collection of tales of travels, broken and heeled hearts and a lifetime of musical and occasionally mischievous memories.
A lot of us have seen that very famous photograph of Woody Guthrie’s guitar with the message on it “This machine kills fascists.” Is it true that you traded; I guess what you could consider an actual killing machine, an expensive rifle, for that first good guitar that you had?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s a true story, actually. I went on a summer vacation to the Hawaiian Islands with my parents when I was about 14 or 15 years old. There was a guy there who was partners with a guy in a gun magazine – sort of an NRA-type magazine. It turns out he was there for a photo shoot with this rifle that had just been put out by Remington. He was going on a helicopter ride the next day into some uncharted areas of Kauai to take pictures with this rifle and he invited me. On the way back in the helicopter he asked me how I liked the rifle and I said, ‘Well, it’s really nice,’ and he said, ‘Well it’s yours.’ So we flew home with the rifle and it sat in the closet for six or seven months and then finally I sold it to a friend of mine who would go hunting with his dad, and I took the $125 and went down to a music store and bought my first good guitar. And I’ve never had a firearm since. So I guess in a certain way I’ve used my guitar in the same way Woody did.
That’s a great story. Okay, let’s get into Baladista and let me first ask you to translate the title.
It has kind of a nice ring to it, Baladista, but it really has a simple definition; it simply means ballad singer, or folk singer or troubadour. So that’s basically what it translates to, and pretty much a good description of what I do.
You mentioned “troubadour;” thank you for the nice segue, Joel. The album’s tenth and final track is “500 Miles” and it features the line: “Away from home, away from home/Lord I’m 500 miles away from home.” You traveled a lot in your younger days, mostly to avoid the draft, but does wanderlust also play a part in your life and lyrics?
Yeah, it kinda does. I think there’s this sort of perpetual journey home. A life journey is like a long journey home, sometimes. You can be in a beautiful place that you call home, but still not feel like you’re home. I do feel like I’m at home, but it took me a long time to get there. [“500 Miles”] is a song that I learned very early on when I started playing the guitar. It’s been covered by a lot of people. When I got to recording the album and I got towards the end, it just seemed like the perfect track to kind of close things up with because the whole album is sort of a long, personal journey.
Songs like “Thanks for the Smiles” and – in a different context – “El Bracero” also touch on travel. For those who don’t know the history, explain who el bracero was and tell me why you wanted to write a song for him?
Well, for them, I guess you’d say. For a long time – many, many years – I’ve been singing this song that Woody wrote called “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos;” some people call it “Deportees,” and it’s about an incident that happened in California, near Fresno, over Los Gatos Canyon. The chorus goes: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita/Adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria/You won’t have a name when you fly the big airplane, because all they will call you is deportees.” That’s the way it was reported on the radio, and Woody just felt the real sense of injustice that the people that crashed in that plane didn’t have names; they were just deportees. And for many years, people have thought of the Mexican nationals that were on that plane as undocumented workers or as illegals, as some people call them. The reality is that they weren’t; they were part of the Bracero program; they were here legally working on contract here in the United States and they were on their way home. And so, the Bracero Program, which basically started at the beginning of World War II, 1942, and ran until 1964, provided food for the entire nation, for the troops, for the allies and even for the prisoners of war. And so I just kind of wrote a documentary song that tells the story of what the Bracero Program was and it’s just my tribute to the men and women who came north to work.
That’s a great track. Now the first single and video off the record is “Old Portland Town” and the song is based on a true story. Will you tell us a little bit about it?
It was at a time during the late 68s when I was up in the Portland area and I had migrated to the Northwest with a group of people I like to say were mystic artists and visionaries (laughs) from the counterculture. It was the time of the psychedelic counterculture revolution. Well long story short, the city of Portland infiltrated the counterculture youth scene with FBI agents, and they were really looking for people who were involved in revolutionary, you know, like kind of violent revolutionary activities, and they didn’t really find any of that. They just really found a bunch of kids smoking marijuana. But they rounded everybody up anyway. I ended up on probation, because it was my first offense, and of course what I was arrested for in 1969 is legal now there (laughs), so I thought now was a good time to tell that story.
I love the line: “There’s no regret for the time’s we spent/The good and bad both came and went.”
Yeah. And that’s just kind of the way it works, you know?
The two tracks that I keep going back to on the record are “Love’s First Lesson,” which I dub romantic, and “Sticks and Stones,” which I label redemptive. If I had to choose – and it’s tough – “Sticks and Stones” is the one I’ve had on repeat quite a bit. It’s a stunning piece of storytelling. Tell me about that song.
I’ve played the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival for 17 years; this year will be my 18th year there. The first year I was just lucky to get on it because when I found out about it it was pretty much booked up and the people that were putting it on didn’t know who I was. I knew when I went there that everybody on the festival was going to be doing a Woody Guthrie song, and I had to bring something that nobody else was going to bring. I looked through all my materials and I found a very obscure Woody Guthrie song and it was about a lynching that took place just six miles outside of the town of Okemah, OK. I just decided to take this song to the Woody Guthrie Festival called “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son” about the lynching of a black woman named Laura Nelson and her teenage son and her baby in 1911. The story is readily available; you can look up her name and read the whole story. Woody was born a year later. The incident was so intense that he heard about it his whole childhood, and in 1940 he finally wrote a song about it. So I got up there and sang it, and I didn’t notice until intermission – which was right after I sang – there was a black woman sitting in the front row and she got up and came over to me and said,” I just wanted to thank you for singing that song because three people came in and sat down behind me and they said some things that were so hurtful that I can’t even repeat them, and then you sang that song and then everything was alright.” And I’m thinking, like, man, that song’s about a lynching of a black woman and her kids, and I’m looking around and she’s literally the only person of color in the place. So when the show started again after intermission I had to look out through the curtain and see who these people were that were sitting behind her – and there were three empty seats. That really stirred me and I just thought about it and thought about it all the way home and when I got home I just had to write it down and that’s the “Sticks and Stones” story. Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can break your heart.
Let me go back to “Love’s First Lesson.” I called it romantic, I guess musically, but what a universal story.
It’s kind of like one of those things people don’t talk about much. I mean you always see the perfect couple. From a personal standpoint, as a young person – not now, but when I was young – in a relationship, you’re looking around and you see other people in relationships that are seemingly perfect and you just wonder, how do they do it? But the reality is, nobody’s really doing that. I mean, it’s a lot of work to have a relationship with another person. [“Love’s First Lesson” co-writer] Jack Tempchin and I have been friends for decades, probably like 40 years. He’s a hit songwriter, he wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone” for The Eagles…and a whole bunch of other hit songs…but we’ve never really written together. One night I was at dinner with my wife and I got a phone call from Jack. He stays up really late, and he said, “You know, I was trying to think of somebody that would drive over to my house, that would be willing to stay up late, that’s a really good songwriter and would come over here and help me write the epic song of the 60s and I pretty much narrowed it down to you.” And I said, “Well you know, Jack, that’s an offer I can’t refuse” (laughs). So I went over there and our plan was to write the epic song of the 60s and this is what we came up with (laughs).
Epic song of any generation!
Yeah. So I guess the lessons learned were that when you start out to write a song with somebody, or even by yourself, you don’t really know what you’re gonna end up with, and love’s first lesson is a broken heart.
Let me throw three names out to you and then I’ll ask you a question. One we’ve already discussed quite a bit here, and that would be Woody Guthrie. The other two are John Steinbeck and Jackson Browne. My question is: what do all three of these men share?
Well, I think all three share a celebration of the human spirit in their work; a celebration, and a documentation of the real world. Jackson, Woody and John Steinbeck all wrote what they saw. They were great observers. You know what they’d say about Woody: three chords and the truth. That’s the thing that I think runs through their work is their dedication to the human spirit. They didn’t sell out. You could never brand Woody Guthrie. Branding is a thing you hear about so much now in the marketing world. You know, like, what’s our “brand,” you gotta come up with a “brand” or, a good way to “brand” this is…” Well you know Woody literally said, “Don’t ever let anybody brand you; don’t ever let anybody push you into a corner and make you conform to a confined space.” And I think that Jackson and Steinbeck both in their careers also kind of resisted the things that would cause them to compromise their values system. Jackson, he plays so many benefits for the causes that are close to his heart and for people. He stands up for social cause and he does so many benefits that sometime his agency can’t even book him shows in the places that he’s traveling to because he’ played there for a cause already. So I think that’s what makes them similar as artists is that they didn’t compromise what they believed in to write a hit novel or a hit song.
They didn’t have to brand themselves
That’s right; they didn’t have to be branded. There’s a thing that Woody said that [Guthrie’s son] Arlo actually told me: it’s better to fail at being yourself, than to succeed at being somebody else.
So true. Final question for you, Joel: is music still as effective a tool for change as it was in the 60s?
Yeah, absolutely and in all kinds of different levels; it doesn’t present itself in exactly the same way. Music is very present everywhere; its influence will never change. The essence of what music is all about is just all around us; it’s never gonna go away. Let me just say one more thing about that; when it comes to songs, as an art medium, it’s one of those things you can’t really destroy. Like you can’t burn it like a book or destroy it like you could a painting. It’s all oral transmission; you sing a song, you learn the words, it’s in your head, it’s in your heart. You carry it around you, inside you, nobody can take it away from you.
Joel, it’s been a pleasure. Again, the new album, Baladista, is out on April 14.
Yeah. Well, great, man. We’ll keep in touch and I appreciate your support so much, man. Take care.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Joel Rafael, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.